“Fergie, sort ’em out!” was a regular cry from the Stretford End in Sir Alex Ferguson’s early years. The chant would come just before half-time when Manchester United were playing poorly or losing, in hope that the manager could turn things around. It was a criticism of the players but not a direct, personal one, more the fans’ way of suggesting they had to raise their game.
The support at Old Trafford didn’t really have need to complain on Saturday night when their team beat Brighton 2-0 in the FA Cup quarterfinal. The performance was mediocre against well-drilled opponents but a 37th-minute goal from Romelu Lukaku, United’s best player so far in 2018, raised spirits, as did Nemanja Matic’s late header.
A freezing cold night didn’t stop those in L Stand — usually the away end but given over to 1,400 vocal United fans in a trial — working through a medley of terrace classics. Credit goes to the club, the organisers and the participants for making the experiment work. Old Trafford needs more people making noise and Jose Mourinho has been right to call out the lack of atmosphere. But is he also right to call out his players, as he did — again — after Saturday’s game?
You won’t find anyone more critical of their own players than fans. The words of journalists can sting, but none are as harsh as those which come from those supposed to be behind them. Players will say that there’s nothing worse than getting berated by supporters of the club for which you play, but is it a necessary evil?
“If you’re not playing well, you should get stick,” said Ryan Giggs when I asked him about getting criticism. Others disagree with him, citing the potentially destructive effect on confidence that might be already very low. But while it’s true that players generally have to be able to withstand criticism, tweets from the anonymous online are very different from public condemnation from your boss.
Mourinho has been critical of many of his players, usually because he wants a response. He doesn’t want to be their friend; he wants an improvement and an “I’ll prove him wrong” attitude. When it works, as with Henrikh Mkhitaryan last season or, at times, with Luke Shaw, the manager can feel vindicated.
United’s manager is consistent: He would rather not need to publicly admonish — and he’s also generous with praise, especially for young players like Scott McTominay — but he’s used his methods for years and you’ll also struggle to find a more popular manager with his squad.
It is possible to defend Mourinho’s public censure. After all, if he doesn’t point out failings, who will? Players are surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear; money talks, and agents make so much from their top clients that they want to keep them happy, even if that means having members of their family on the payroll.
So if relatives or employees would balk at undermining players with uncomfortable home truths and people at the club hardly want to upset the apple cart either, you’re left with one man to dispense discipline or strong words, and Mourinho does it because he thinks that’s what best.
It can look harsh when he’s singling out a 22-year-old like Shaw, but the undeniably talented left-back has not always helped himself. For example, to the consternation of others, he was last to board the team bus one day during his first preseason; Darren Fletcher had to go and hurry him up. A year later, Shaw admitted to me that he could have worked harder. When he did, he was cursed by injury.
Sometimes things are not meant to be. Shaw will have plenty of time to prove his manager wrong if he does leave, and Mourinho, like any in his line of work, doesn’t always get it right. He had Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah at Chelsea but let both go; the pair have been the best players in the Premier League this season.
Mourinho is frustrated because his talented, expensively assembled squad is not playing to its potential. Whom do you blame for that? Mourinho is pointing his finger at the players, but there have been plenty of times when he’s turned attention to himself to deflect criticism.
Match-going fans are still overwhelming behind their manager: In a United We Stand fanzine poll, 83 percent thought Mourinho should get a third year, with 11 percent saying he should go now. The remaining 6 percent put off deciding until the end of the season.
United’s boss is under severe pressure, with critics convinced that he’s finished at the top level, but while he makes mistakes, it’s worth remembering that, seven days ago, his stock was as high as it had ever been since he joined United. A week is a long time in football.